Dorsey & Semrau Featured In New Jersey League of Municipalities on Meeting Decorum

Feb 2, 2021Municipal Law

The Importance of Decorum

Civility keeps communities involved in government

There is a sense that politics have become especially nasty in recent years, but politics has always been rough and tumble. For example, the distance between the front benches in the House of Commons is two sword lengths plus a foot. Early sergeants at arms maintained order with the mace that was kept in front of the presiding officer for everyone to see. 

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Maintaining Decorum

  • The most critical thing a Mayor, School Board President, or other presiding officer must do is to establish the protocols at the reorganization meeting and consistently enforce these rules. Back in the 70s and 80s, it was sufficient to use Roberts Rules of Order. Today, you should adopt a resolution or ordinance with some basic guidelines on decorum. Wyckoff just became the first municipality to adopt the new model developed by the MEL. The model is also on the MEL’s website
  • Consistent enforcement is critical. You cannot call your opponents out of order for things that your supporters are allowed to get away with. 
  • Establish reasonable time limits for speakers at both hearings and the open portion of the meeting. 
  • Establish a meeting curfew so that the meeting automatically ends at a certain hour unless the bylaws are suspended. That requires a two-thirds vote. Both Council Members and the public become more distinct when they know that the meeting is about to automatically end. 
  • Avoid getting into a debate with the public. If the presiding officer gets into an argument from the dais, the meeting will quickly get out of hand. You are not obligated to answer or respond to any questions. Defer questions that require follow-up to the manager, attorney or committee chairs, and depending on the circumstances you can offer to answer questions after the meeting. 
  • When you are presiding, be careful of your body language. It is best to maintain eye contact with the speaker and avoid comments or expressions that appear to be judgmental. Try to appear as neutral as possible. One expression that will help calm a discussion is “This is a situation where reasonable people can come to different conclusions with the same facts.” You can also remind everyone that whatever they say will be permanently on the record and cannot be redacted. 
  • Do not attempt to shout down a speaker. That only escalates the situation. When things are getting out of hand, call for a short recess. This motion is privileged and proceeds without debate. Often cooler heads will prevail and you can regain control of a without having to take more formal action. You should always call a recess before asking the police to talk to someone who is violating the rules of decorum. 

Fred Semrau